The importance of recall training for dogs

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Ensuring your dog has good recall is one of the most important obedience exercises you can teach them. It can literally save their life, so if you are struggling, then seek the help of a qualified dog trainer.

If your dog isn’t reliable with their recall, always take along some treats (or whatever they are most motivated by as a reward) and ensure they know you have them before letting them wander off.

The steps of recall training
  • Call their name
  • Mark & praise when they look at you (“yes, good boy”:)
  • Give them the cue “come”
  • Move backwards (gathering up the lead if you are still teaching them and using a lead to guide them)
  • When they come directly to you, reward with treat or praise etc. (or you could lure them into a sit with a treat and give it to them when they do)

Check out the steps of Recall and how it is done with, along well as a demonstration on teaching ‘Sit’ and ‘Leave It‘ in this video here.

Slowly build up the distraction and distance
  • Start on lead practising at home under low distraction and use treats so that you can either lure them back towards you, or gently guide them back with the lead.
  • Increase the distance and distraction until you are off-lead at home.
  • Start the process again out front of your house (gates closed).
  • Increase the distraction by moving to the park at quiet times, then slowly introduce more distraction and distance at busier times until you can confidently let them off in a park with fencing and so on.
  • Use a long lead so you can increase the distance, but still have them safely attached.
Where people go wrong

Call their dog and go home every time

So many times the only time owners call their dog back at the park is when they are going home. If you were out having fun with your mates and you know that when your name is called out it means the party is over, would you be in a hurry to rush back? No.

Make sure you call your dog back to you at the park and reward their return, then allow them to go off and play again.  Don’t stick to the same number of times you call and release them either otherwise they’ll catch on.  You want to keep them coming back in anticipation of good things.

Don’t make it worthy of returning to owner

The thing to remember is that dogs like to sniff and search out the world around them, so if you do have an independent dog that likes to take off to explore or go play with its mates at the dog park, you need to make sure that even when they are off having great fun, the reward they are going to get from you is even better than what they are doing at that time. Dogs do things to better their situation, so we need to be far more interesting and exciting than anything else that is going on.

This is why understanding what motivates your dog is so important and taking a few different levels of reward with you if you have a dog that is particularly tough to get the attention of.

Whilst my dog Darcy is great at recall, if he wasn’t there wouldn’t be much point me trying to lure him over with the promise of a treat when he’s in the middle of having a great play. Food is not a big motivator for him.  However, if I was in the distance and he heard the squeak of his rubber chicken, he’d be back quicker than flash lightening, even if it was his best mate he was in the midst of playing with.

Even the best of dogs will still need a bit of extra encouragement at times when the attraction away from you is a very strong one and I find people often think a gruff yell of their dog’s name should be enough to get them back.  Think about what you would respond to best when you are having the time of your life and have to leave the party.

Owners that are teaching their dog to ignore them

Never allow your dog to keep ignoring you as you call their name over and over again. This is teaching them the wrong behaviour which we do not want to reinforce If you are not confident about their recall, then you should always make sure you are close enough to entice them with treat and an exuberant call.

If you are standing on the other side of the park and keep calling out their name, you are giving them the chance to pretend they didn’t hear or see you.

Punish their dog upon return

I understand you may have been frustrated or embarrassed about calling your dog a hundred times before they finally make their way back to you, so yelling at them, putting on the lead and dragging them out of the park may be your natural instinct. Especially as you don’t want to be seen to be rewarding their slack response.

However, it is up to you to ensure you don’t put yourself or your dog in the position of ignoring you all of those times (as per all the other tips on this page).   By punishing them when they finally do return, they are actually going to therefore associate the punishment with the return, and anything that has a negative consequence will not be reinforced.

Of course you don’t need to praise their slow wander over if they do usually have a good recall. Instead, give them an alternative command, such as a “sit” and reward that before putting them on lead and calmly taking them home.

Other tips

You could also use a 1-2 metre ribbon on their collar in the early days when you are moving off lead and into public areas so that they can still run around freely, but so that you or others have something to grab on to and pull them in to you as you call their name.

If your dog is a Beagle, Labrador or other dog that has a strong scent drive, you are pushing your luck trying to call them back when they have their nose stuck to the ground following a trail.   Wait until they are distracted from that task they are zeroed in on and more likely to be focused on your ‘reward’ on offer.

Likewise for when your dog is mid-play.  Wait until the moment the dogs have taken a break from playing and that is when you time your call.

If you are having major problems with recalling your dog this is something to not leave for too long and expect it to somehow fix itself, so seek the services of a qualified and experienced trainer.

Remember, dogs do not grow out of problem behaviour. They grow IN to it as it becomes a more established behaviour over time, so get onto it early and enjoy having a safe, leash free outing with your dog as soon as possible!

About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog

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